Coinme CEO Neil Bergquist on Bitcoin ATMs: ‘We Want To Make Them User-Friendly, Simple’

Customers in grocery stores and pharmacies across America may have noticed a new kind of ATM appear in recent years, one that dispenses not cash but cryptocurrency, like bitcoin. These crypto ATMs, which function like traditional ATMs but include software from crypto exchange Coinme, represent an intersection of the old and new — a physical access point for the digital world of decentralized finance.

For Coinme co-founder and CEO Neil Bergquist, the rise of these crypto kiosks is far from just a novelty. It’s about opening up bitcoin’s transformative potential to a mass audience by addressing some of the biggest barriers to mainstream adoption: trust and accessibility.

“Back when bitcoin first started, buying it was an incredibly convoluted process,” Bergquist explains. “You’d meet a stranger at a coffee shop, hand them cash, and they’d give you a USB stick with bitcoin on it. It was wildly unregulated and fraught with risk. We just want to make buying bitcoin user-friendly, simple — in two clicks, you can buy bitcoin and that’s why we deployed one of the first bitcoin ATMs in the world.”

Coinme’s Mission

Coinme’s mission is to make the process of buying and selling cryptocurrencies as seamless as withdrawing money from a bank. The company has deployed its software across over 40,000 physical retail locations, striking partnerships with kiosk operators like Coinstar and financial service providers like MoneyGram.

“You put cash into the machine and it’s instantly loaded into your Coinme digital wallet before you even leave the grocery store,” says Bergquist.

Coinme’s crypto-enabled locations fulfill a basic need in crypto: providing a way for people to convert their dollars to digital assets like bitcoin and vice versa. But the company’s ambitions extend beyond just enabling easy on- and off-ramps. Bergquist views Coinme as part of a broader mission to build user-friendly infrastructure for real-world adoption of cryptocurrency, whether for payments, investing, or simply as an alternative financial system.

Crypto as a Payment System

For all the hype around bitcoin as “digital gold,” a nonsovereign store of value to hedge against inflation and economic turmoil, the cryptocurrency was initially conceived as something more utilitarian: a decentralized payment network to facilitate online transactions.

The promise of crypto as a faster, cheaper alternative to traditional payments has been slow to materialize at scale, hampered by what the average consumer might take to be a convoluted process of managing a digital wallet with a complicated private key. But crypto exchanges have simplified this process, explains Bergquist.

“You don’t need to download a wallet; you don’t need to worry about digging up a landfill because you lost your USB stick in order to access your bitcoin,” he says. “We handle the complexity on the back end so that you just have the user experience of near-instant and free peer-to-peer or payment-type transactions.”

In addition, transaction times are speeding up thanks to so-called “layer 2” solutions like the Bitcoin Lightning Network, which enables nearly instantaneous, low-cost transfers by moving transactions off the main blockchain.

The intersection of low costs and real-time settlement unlocks a number of use cases poorly served by the conventional financial system. Cross-border remittances, for example, remain maddeningly expensive through legacy money transmitters. According to the World Bank, the global average cost is 6.39% of the amount sent. Bitcoin and crypto represent a way to bypass these fees by cutting out intermediaries.

These remittances illustrate one of crypto’s key value propositions as an internet-native payment system that transcends national boundaries. Crypto is an “interoperable network” akin to the open internet itself, where value can flow freely and settle globally based on the immutable consensus of blockchain miners rather than fee-based banking networks.

Crypto as an Asset Class

During the economically turbulent pandemic years, marked by supply chain disruptions and money printing by the Federal Reserve, many turned to crypto as a “real asset” like to gold or real estate — a finite commodity resistant to inflation. Bitcoin’s fixed supply of 21 million coins is seen by proponents as a key advantage over fiat currencies.

“Bitcoin is tangible because it cannot be mimicked or copied. It’s unique,” says Bergquist. “And no one can come in with a new policy and change that. It’s hard-coded into the bitcoin blockchain, and that creates trust as a store of value.”

While skeptics argue that bitcoin has experienced boom-and-bust volatility more reminiscent of a speculative asset than a stable hedge, Bergquist notes that from a long-term perspective, the price has tended to steadily climb even as it fluctuates in smaller intervals. Price swings that trend up are a constant, but each trough has hit a higher low than the last.

As a regulated financial institution itself, Coinme emphasizes cryptocurrency’s potential as a legitimate asset class. The company performs Know-Your-Customer identity verification, anti-money laundering controls, and even blockchain monitoring to blacklist nefarious crypto wallets.

“We’ve made crypto safer,” Bergquist asserts. “Coinme and other regulated exchanges make it clear that this is not about bypassing laws or enabling illegal activity.”

From Startup to $1 Billion in Sales

In many ways, Coinme’s own origin story tracks the narrative arc of crypto itself. What started as a fringe experiment among technologists has rapidly scaled into a billion-dollar business with mainstream demand.

Bergquist first learned about bitcoin in 2013 while serving as the managing director of SURF Incubator, a community-supported space for entrepreneurs in Seattle sponsored by Microsoft and PayPal. At the time, he viewed it as “interesting” but nothing worth upending his day job for. That changed when bitcoin surged from around $100 to over $1,000 in a matter of months.

“I thought, OK, this is really something that is gaining a lot of adoption,” says Bergquist. “Bitcoin’s greatest value is the community behind it, and the price often represents the strength of that community.”

Around the same time, the world’s first bitcoin ATM launched in nearby Vancouver, British Columbia, doing over $1 million in transaction volume in its first month of operation. Bergquist and his co-founder, Michael Smyers, bought three bitcoin ATMs “impulsively,” and the two set about charting a course to operate them legally, pioneering one of the first state-issued “virtual currency money transmitter” licenses.

Those humble beginnings tracking down regulators and finding viable ATM locations seem worlds apart from Coinme’s current scale. The company surpassed $1 billion in total volume across its network of Coinme-enabled locations in 2024.

But ubiquity and trust were core to Coinme’s vision from the start, says Bergquist. Crypto-enabling Coinstar kiosks and large ATM networks in established grocery chains and other retail locations helped the company legitimize the idea of exchanging cash for crypto in the public eye. And being fully licensed cemented that credibility. Today, Coinme has a nationwide reach, onboarding crypto-curious consumers in suburban grocery stores and pharmacies.

Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin may have been born on the internet, but their path to mass adoption may just traverse those physical checkout lines and retail kiosks, often in denominations of hard cash. As Bergquist puts it, “The days of meeting strangers in coffee shops to swap cash for a USB stick with bitcoin are far behind us.”